The letters of the word "Haystacks" offer us a shorthand way to think and share what we as Seventh-day Adventists believe. "H" points us to "hope," "A" to "advent," "Y" to "youthful eternity," and now "S," to "Sabbath." What is the Sabbath all about?
Some have said that the New Testament does not command Sabbath observance. Actually it does. Today we will spend time with some New Testament texts which are not always mentioned. I have chosen texts from the book of Matthew. What might we learn from these less commonly considered texts?
Jesus and His disciples walk through a field of grain on the Sabbath. Some of the disciples were hungry and as they walked they began to pluck the grain and rub it between their hands to release the kernel from the chaff to eat the grain.
But as was often the case, the pharisees were present and looking for trouble. When they saw the disciples separating the chaff from the grain, they thought they had a new issue. Immediately they sought to drive a wedge between Jesus and His disciples. They claimed that the action of the disciples was in violation of God's law.
Was it? Let's read what "the law" actually says:
When you enter your neighbor's standing grain, then you may pluck the heads with your hand, but you shall not wield a sickle in your neighbor's standing grain (Deuteronomy 23:25).
God's plan always makes a lot of sense. The disciples were just following this directive. No sickles were in evidence. They were not gathering the grain into bags and taking more than an incidental amount. What was this claim then from the pharisees? The rabbis had added their opinions to God's law. They had surrounded the Sabbath with a long list of burdensome requirements. They had lost sight of God's purpose for the Sabbath.
How does Jesus respond? He reminds them of the story of David and his soldiers eating the old shewbread and remaining unpunished. He reminds them of the priests working in the temple on the Sabbath, but not being guilty because they are accomplishing work God had given them to do for the Sabbath.
Jesus tells them that they have misunderstood God's purpose for the Sabbath. They have not understood His Word:
If you had known what this means, 'I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the innocent (Matthew 12:7).
This is a colossal rebuke. Jesus is telling them that they have misunderstood God's Word. They want to engage in keeping rigorous little rules to earn God's favor. But Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6. Let's look at Hosea 6:4-6:
What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? What shall I do with you, O Judah? For your loyalty is like a morning cloud and like the dew which goes away early. Therefore I have hewn them in pieces by the prophets; I have slain them by the words of My mouth; and the judgments on you are like the light that goes forth. For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, and in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
Through His prophet Hosea, God rebukes His people's unfaithfulness. And Jesus does exactly the same. They are missing the big picture. They see the Sabbath as one more rule, an opportunity to do sacrifice, to give something up for God.
But God prefers loyalty to Him, knowledge of His ways, to fill our vision. He wants us to obey because we agree with Him that doing His truth is right. We should observe the Sabbath because it is like prayer; it draws us closer to Him. He wants to be friends. He wants to see rightness in us.
In a similar text, Isaiah 1:11, we find similar divine thoughts. Through Isaiah God asks why Israel insists on bringing so many sacrifices to Him. He is not interested in mere ritual sacrifices. We come to the nub in Isaiah 1:16-17:
Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from My sight. Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, reprove the ruthless, defend the orphan, plead for the widow."
The spirit of the Sabbath is about loving God enough to echo Him, to do right like Him. Are we begrudgingly obeying or are we seeking to be like Him? Sabbath, like marriage, is a divine gift to us flowing forth from Him to us because He loves us. God is love. When He gives the Sabbath, God is love.
Keeping the Sabbath is about cooperating with God so that He makes us holy. Listen:
No other institution which was committed to the Jews tended so fully to distinguish them from the surrounding nations as did the Sabbath. God designed that its observance should designate them as His worshipers. It was to be a token of their separation from idolatry, and their connection with the true God. But in order to keep the Sabbath holy, men must themselves be holy. Through faith they must become partakers of the righteousness of Christ (The Desire of Ages, p. 283).
Do you see it? Every Sabbath is a call to holiness, an opportunity to go up to holiness, to be a seeker of the holy God! It is an opportunity to cease to do evil.
That puts a different line on this Sabbath question, doesn't it? Its about love. His love for us and our love for Him. The Sabbath is a good and beautiful thing. Satan hates it. He wants to bury it. He is determined to pervert it. Jesus came to cut away the misconceptions and mischaracterizations.
Servants of God should do good all six non-Sabbath days and on the Sabbath day too. We should be careful to keep clear God's purposes for the Sabbath, and keep clear about what God directs and what man directs. Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath--its Author and its best interpreter, for Jesus loves us on His Sabbath and shows us how to show our love for Him.
Jesus went into a synogogue and He was teaching there. Pharisees were present. Among those gathered for worship was a man with a damaged arm. It is described as "whithered." This case was quite visible, quite obvious. The deformity was easy for everyone to see.
Virtually everyone present had the same thought: Jesus might heal this man on the Sabbath day! They watched with anticipation. For Jesus to take such a step would clarify issues. It would strengthen their case against Him, so they thought, considerably. They would catch Jesus based on His relation to the Sabbath. They had their rules and Jesus had His.
They were wrong of course. It was not one set of rules versus another set; it was their error versus God's truth. Jesus would not cleave to their error but would certainly sustain God's truth. Along the way there was a discussion. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all put the focus on this question. They describe the interaction at different points.
It was God's desire to uplift and restore. It was the pharisee's desire to murder. They longed for fresh ammunition to accuse Jesus. How ironic that they would obtain it in relation to Jesus' work of restoration.
All false religions originate in man's desire to exalt himself above God, but result in degrading man to the animal.
What will Jesus do?
He calls the man with the withered hand forward. Then He confronts all present with a question of value. Verse 11:
What man is there among you, who has a sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will he not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable then is a man than a sheep! So then it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.
Jesus speaks to the man: "Stretch out your hand." The man does so. In that moment it is restored to normal; it is like the man's unwithered hand. Everyone sees it happen.
In healing the withered hand, Jesus condemned the custom of the Jews, and left the fourth commandment standing as God had given it (The Desire of Ages, p. 287).
This was always Jesus' work. He would carve away great swaths of error and tradition and reveal the truth buried beneath. He would expose the knife-edge of reality, and for this reason He was hated. He swept aside human brilliance and revealed the light of God.
The Saviour had not come to set aside what patriarchs and prophets had spoken; for He Himself had spoken through these representative men. All the truths of God's word came from Him. But these priceless gems had been placed in false settings. Their precious light had been made to minister to error. God desired them to be removed from their settings of error and replaced in the framework of truth. This work only a divine hand could accomplish. By its connection with error, the truth had been serving the cause of the enemy of God and man. Christ had come to place it where it would glorify God, and work the salvation of humanity (The Desire of Ages, p. 288).
You've noticed how many people turn grumpy when you open the Sabbath question? It's nothing new. "The Sabbath is a sign of Christ's power to make us holy. And it is given to all whom Christ makes holy" (Ibid, p. 288). The Sabbath is a marker of restoration. But the "old man," the habits of life and the character we've developed, does not take well to restoration. He cannot be reformed. He cannot be transformed. He can only die, and he refuses to die.
God must change us or we are lost. We must surrender to Him or we are like the demoniac. We desire to do right but we are captive to our unrenewed self.
Think how many influences there are in your life. How many of them are in opposition to God? Satan is the prince of this world. He has 1,000 ways subtle and not so subtle to occupy us, to provoke us to desire the wrong rather than the right. We are fallen humans and we are psychologically weak. We need every help God can give us.
The Sabbath day is one His most remarkable helps. It brings us together with other God-seeking people. We join together in fellowship and song. We do the unthinkable, we worship God who created heaven and earth, and we do that in a world that is determined to believe that humans are the end product of an evolving slime. We teach the word of God on the Sabbath. God's word is preached on His Sabbath. We do acts of service and kindness for others on the Sabbath. And we remember our Creator on the Sabbath.
The Creator has power to Recreate. And the greatest miracle is the transformation of a self-centered, wholly selfish person into a God-centered person interested in seeking rightness, and doing good for others.
God's holy Sabbath draws our hearts to Him. Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice for us--while we were still sinners, still enemies!
Seventh-day Adventists recognize our own defects. God tells us we are all wrong and we can see that. Yes Lord, that's me. Help me! He delights to change us, to rebuild, restore, recreate. The Sabbath is our Eden day, time with Him in His garden in a broken world. It is an enormously important reinforcement of His values, His plans, His community, His law, His character.
No one can be like Jesus if they dislike His character. Then they need to look again at the seventh day Sabbath. Jesus paid a high price to uncover this beautiful connecting truth, belonging to Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath, but made for the restoration of man.
The first "S" in HAYSTACKS is "Sabbath." It is a core part of life for Seventh-day Adventists because it is necessary truth for an age of disconnection, disbelief, and distraction. The Sabbath helps us be more like Jesus.
Let us be reminded to cease from our own works and trust in God's. It is needed for human flourishing. It is a gift from Jesus.
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